Our equity journey so far: Q&A with Dr. Ben Danielson

Until Feb. 1, 2023, we were Group Health Foundation. This post was written under our former identity. To learn more about our new name, read our announcement here.

Since the formation of Group Health Foundation’s board of directors last spring, we’ve been exploring the core values and principles that define our organization. Early on, equity emerged as a leading value for us. To delve into what equity means for the foundation’s work, we’ve invited speakers including Glenn Harris, president of the Center for Social Inclusion, and several health foundation leaders to share their experiences with integrating equity into an organization’s DNA. We’re deeply engaged in discussions about how we lead with equity and integrate it in all that we do—from strategy, community partnerships, advocacy, and grantmaking to hiring, contracting, and organizational operations. Below is an excerpt from a conversation with Board Vice Chair Dr. Ben Danielson about the early stages of the foundation’s equity journey.

Dr. Ben DanielsonQ: What does equity personally mean to you?

A: I learned a great deal about equity from Dr. Blanche Lavizzo, Seattle’s first African American female pediatrician, who started Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic, where I work. Our clinic serves families and children from very low-incomes and diverse backgrounds. Many of these families have heartbreaking stories. Some have not been treated well or had access to quality healthcare.

Dr. Lavizzo’s credo was “quality care with dignity.” I think she was naming equity. She was asking us to pay attention to the dignity side. And, I think that’s what equity asks of us today, to pay attention to the dignity side, to pay attention to the gaps and the places where people aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve.

Q: How has your experience translated to the work of Group Health Foundation?

A: One of the most appealing things about joining Group Health Foundation is that the foundation named equity front and center as the top priority. It’s exciting to harken back to what I learned from Dr. Lavizzo and our work at the clinic, and now to have the unique opportunity to promote equity from the ground up, to make equity a fundamental part of our DNA—so that it drives everything from here on out.

Q: Why did the board decide to make equity a leading value of Group Health Foundation?

A: It’s a little bit about the legacy of Group Health Cooperative, which was founded more than 70 years ago as a “radical” alternative to traditional health care. For Group Health Cooperative, it was about doing things differently, feeling uncomfortable, stretching, and having audacious goals. Going forward, we’re determined to take this powerful idea of doing things differently to the next level by building equity into the foundation of our organization.

Q: What do you foresee as potential challenges?

A: There is a pent-up desire to start making a difference in our communities right away. As a new organization, however, we need time to develop a sense of identity, especially when it comes to equity. What does equity really mean and how is it going to drive our work? If we rush out and start doing a lot of big things without a solid grounding in how equity guides us, that could be a big mistake.

Q: What are you looking forward to learning in 2018?

A: I think there are threads of understanding that are going to get woven closer and closer together. I’m looking forward to exploring more key questions. What is the intersection between social justice and equity issues, and how deeply does a health foundation step into those waters and play a vocal role? How do we start to flex our convening power toward advancing broader conversations around equity? How do we honestly and truly center communities in this work?

Q: What has surprised you along the way?

A: I’ve been involved with many different organizations as a leader, but this is the most inspiring, diverse, creative, and thoughtful board I’ve been on to date (and I say that with apologies to all the other boards I’ve served on). Because life experiences and professional paths have been very different, people’s views are different, especially about issues of equity, and I think that’s a good thing. This provides a refreshing opportunity to shift out of our comfort zones a bit, and to step back and listen. It’s been a wonderful surprise to embrace the ambiguity around equity, to recognize where views are divergent, and to keep working at it to find common ground.

Q: Anything else you’d like to share about this journey so far?

A: We’ve had great ideas from board and staff. Latisha Hill, one of our board members from Spokane, recently suggested a great way for us to hold our values solid as we continue to take risks and move further on the equity journey is to mark our progress with “pitons”—the anchor bolts of mountain climbers. As we develop new shared agreements—both qualitatively and operationally about equity—we’re going to drive in a piton. For example, we understand equity is a journey and not an end point, we understand equity is not the same as equality, and we understand conversations and decisions about equity may make us uncomfortable. Those are pitons we get to stake into the mountain. And, if we do trip up, or there’s a time as a group we stumble, we’ll only fall so far. We’ll regain our footing from the pitons we’ve established and continue on this incredible journey.